Friday, October 21, 2011

Genesis and the "Big Bang"

When I Googled "Big Bang Theory," the first result wasn't the astronomy theory I was looking for. Tells you where our culture's collective head is. In any case, Wikipedia describes the "Big Bang Theory" (the real one) in this way:
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model of the early development of the universe. The major premise of the Big Bang theory is that the universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state that expanded rapidly (a "Big Bang"). This rapid expansion caused the young universe to cool and resulted in its present continuously expanding state. According to recent measurements, scientific evidence, and observations,the original state happened around 13.7 billion years ago (see age of the Universe), which can be referred to as the time that the Big Bang occurred.
In 1991, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a noted physicist and lecturer published a book called, "Genesis and the Big Bang", which, according to his website, "offers convincing evidence that science's "Big Bang" creation model and the Bible's Genesis One's explanation for the creation of the universe are one-in-the-same." I love Dr. Schroeder. An engaging and fascinating figure and dynamic speaker who spoke in my former shul in Michigan, his work represents an important attempt to reconcile theology and scientific theory. But his work isn't a work of fact. Neither is the Big Bang Theory itself. It's only a scientific theory - with many possible difficulties that I personally don't understand. (Read the real Wikipedia article if you're interested.) A problem arises though, when writers and thinkers confuse theory and argument with fact, and write as if the Big Bang Theory and Creation are one and the same.
In a recent piece that appeared on the Jewish Ideas Daily website, Michael Carasik (who I don't know, but is described as "the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast", who "teaches at the University of Pennsylvania") opens his Torah piece ("The End of the Torah") writing,

The Torah begins with a bang—the Big Bang, the creation of the universe.  But it ends with a whimper, albeit a whimper concealed by a very loud noise of another kind.  
The piece concludes similarly,
Literarily, the Torah ends as it began, invoking the historical story of the Jewish people in a cosmic frame.  The Big Bang of Genesis 1 distracts us from the silent mystery of the instant "before" creation (if that is indeed a theologically or scientifically possible moment at all).  
Personally, I don't find the piece all that compelling and wouldn't have written about it. But Carasik's casual intermingling of the "Big Bang" with Creation does trouble me.
I have no issue with modern attempts to rectify science and theology. Yet, we must always remain cognizant of the fact that these represent attempts to reconcile theories - nothing more and nothing less. We make these attempts in an effort to accept seemingly contradictory theories, when science tells us one thing and religion another. How indeed can the universe be the product of a billions-year-old explosion when the Torah tells us that God created the world several thousands years ago? Good question. We can either reject science (not a good option in my view), reject religion (a far worse option), or try to find some way to merge the two, as Dr. Schroeder does. But, when we begin to refer to these efforts as facts, we endanger our faith by equating the two systems with each other. I'll explain.
A Torah Jew accepts axioms of faith. Creation is a pretty important one, upon which every other religious tenet rests. These principles are, by definition, eternal. They do not and will not change.
Science finds itself under no such restrictions. It creates theories based on observations and rejects them when new observations cannot be reconciled with those theories. A scientist cannot hold eternal scientific truths. She can only believe what she can see right now, and must reject a theory, no matter how ingrained, when it can no longer be proven. (Even this year, scientists have questioned the Holy of Holies of Theories: Einstein's Theory of Relativity, based on recent experiments.)
Allowing ourselves to identify a religious doctrine with a certain scientific theory creates two problems: First and foremost, it equates two very different systems of belief, one eternal and unchanging, and the other in constant flux. By definition, this cheapens the strength of our belief and faith, until we feel comfortable shifting religious philosophy and tenets of faith as we would an antiquated scientific theory. And, on a more practical level, what happens when science comes up with a new theory to replace the Big Bang which better matches new observations from even more powerful technology? Do we then say that Creation was wrong as well? After all, weren't Creation and the Big Bang one and the same?
Am I making too much out of a pithy literary attempt to frame a Torah piece on a popular website? Perhaps. But meshing theology and science is always a dangerous game which requires a very delicate touch. As we read Bereishit yet again this week, and return once again to  the mystery of Creation, let us commit ourselves to accept our own limitations, and realize that the Creation story isn't a scientific text, nor should it be. Underlying any attempt to reconcile science and faith must be a firm commitment to our religious beliefs.
Scientific theories come and scientific theories go. Today the Big Bang is an important astronomy theory, and tomorrow it will just be a bad sitcom from the early 21st century. But our faith in God, whether we can accurately explain how He created the world, remains absolute.